New Orleans

With both teams having a losing record, the other events surrounding the nationally televised 39th annual Bayou Classic football game Saturday took on more importance for both Southern University and Grambling State University.

“It’s not only about football. It’s a weekend of events that publicizes us on a national level. It shows who we are and what we do,” said James Llorens, chancellor of Southern University Baton Rouge. “It highlights our achievements and our traditions. It’s also a recruiting effort for us. So, it’s not just a competition, but two universities sharing a rich history and coming together.”

Last year, the two schools reported splitting $1.32 million in proceeds from the series of Bayou Classic events.

Frank Pogue, president of Grambling, said the Bayou Classic is an annual reawakening that shows people the importance of historically black colleges and universities, called HBCUs. A losing season doesn’t diminish the football game, he said.

“This game is always highly competitive,” Pogue said. “The team that wins tomorrow won the season.”

Alexis Stennis, 20, a Grambling fan from Shreveport, recalls attending the Bayou Classic with her family as a child. Even when the teams were better, the game was only part of the event.

“This is two HBCUs coming together and having fun,” Stennis said. “It doesn’t matter whoever wins or whoever loses. We’re going to have fun regardless.”

Stennis traveled with her friend, Ar’Keli Armstrong, 21, a Southern fan from Shreveport.

“This weekend we’re probably going to get into a little bit of trouble, have some fun. Anything goes,” she said.

The Southern Jaguars have a 3-7 record, while the Grambling Tigers are 1-9. About 40,000 fans are expected to watch the Southwestern Athletic Conference football game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome that also will be nationally televised on NBC, although that television contract is expiring after this season.

Events began Thursday with the Bayou Classic Thanksgiving Day Parade, which like Mardi Gras, had floats, throws and bands marching through downtown New Orleans. The schools on Friday held career and college expos plus two panel discussions, including one on hazing.

The Battle of the Bands on Friday night is one the highlights. It features performances by musicians and comedians. The event is capped by the schools’ highly regarded marching bands facing off on the field, trying to outdo each other with their musical selections.

Long lines formed outside the Superdome about an hour before the Battle of the Bands started, while inside disc jockeys played records for the thousands who had made it to their seats. At one point, while the crowd was waiting for the show to start, a small section erupted into back-and-forth chants, during which one side yelled “Southern” while the other group shouted “Grambling.”

“The Bayou Classic is the queen of all classics,” said Southern University System President Ronald Mason Jr. “It’s a hallmark weekend for black families to come together. It’s almost like a reunion for some people — family and friends.”

Mark Romig, president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., said officials expect a $30 million impact to the city and more than 200,000 visitors for the Bayou Classic.

Early reports from hotels in metro New Orleans showed 88 percent occupancy of the area’s approximately 38,000 rooms for Friday and Saturday. That figure was expected to increase during the week and could meet or exceed last year’s 92 percent occupancy for the weekend, Romig said.

“I think people have had to make tough decisions in tough economic times with their discretionary income, but it hasn’t lost its luster,” said Southern Board of Supervisors member Murphy Bell Jr., of Baton Rouge. “After all these years, it’s a place where African Americans get to come together and be among family and friends.”

Danny Monteverde, of The Advocate’s New Orleans bureau, contributed to this report.